July 11, 2008

Cliffhanger for Plan Commission

By Bob Caylor, The News-Sentinel, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Jul. 11--As supporters of a real estate developer strove to demonstrate the company's nature-loving motives, opponents of a vast subdivision proposed for northern Allen County found themselves arguing that failing septic systems aren't as great a threat as claimed.

The Allen County Plan Commission on Thursday conducted a second public hearing on the Canyon Cliffs subdivision that would be built at Coldwater and Chapman roads along Cedar Creek. More than 100 people turned out for the hearing, which lasted more than three hours. The commission is scheduled to vote next Thursday on whether to approve the development.

Although Canyon Cliffs would cover a sizable area -- about 139 acres -- Oakmont Development's attorney, Tom Niezer, pointed out that it would be an exceptionally low-density addition, with only 28 lots. Forty-five of the 139 acres, mostly wetlands, would not be developed at all, Niezer said. (The wetlands are protected under the federal Clean Water Act.) In fact, he said the unique attributes of the site move developer Oakmont to "set a new standard for environmentally sensitive development in Allen County."

Oakmont is proposing that, at its expense, it would link a subdivision sewer system to Fort Wayne's sewer system, with enough additional capacity to carry the waste from 60 homes in the Holmestead Acres subdivision to Fort Wayne.

But how important a benefit would that be? Opponents pointed out that coliform bacteria come from many sources other than human waste: geese, livestock and even rotting vegetation. There's no predicting how much water quality would be improved by putting Holmestead Acres on sewer lines, they said.

David Van Gilder, president of the board of ACRES Land Trust, which owns hundreds of acres of natural preserves around and near the site, warned the commission it would set an unfortunate precedent by approving Canyon Cliffs. Although "Plan-It Allen" -- the city's and county's joint comprehensive land-use plan -- emphasizes the importance of preserving natural areas, developers will get the message that by dangling infrastructure improvements before local officials, they can develop anywhere they like, he said.

Thursday's hearing continued a discussion that has occupied the commission for weeks. Besides deciding whether the land can be subdivided as five minor plats, the commission also must decide on a request from the Allen County Regional Water and Sewer District to rescind restrictive covenants placed on the land in 2000. The sewer district supports the development because it would provide "septic relief" to homeowners in Holmestead Acres.

Attorney John Gastineau, representing some opponents of the development, told commissioners that one among several reasons they should not approve the minor-plat subdivision is because it is a use of minor plats specifically forbidden by an ordinance passed earlier this year. Approving the minor-plats development would signal the county's endorsement of trading "septic relief" for development rights, he argued.

Van Gilder acknowledged that if the minor-plats subdivision isn't approved, the company could develop on "estate" lots with septic systems, but he questioned whether homes in the $500,000 to $1 million range could be sold with septic systems instead of sewer service.

The hearing was held without commission president Charles Bodenhafer, who owns the land Oakmont would develop and has recused himself from discussions and votes.


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